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22 October 2001

HM Opposition: a user’s guide

Quentin Letts identifies the mysterious folk on the Tory front bench: a sometime nudist, a rozzer, a

By Quentin Letts

There were TV shows in Sixties America, family amusements, whose stars would be introduced in the opening credits. You’d see a dungareed oldie and up would flash the caption: “Grandpa!” Switch to a freckled urchin: “Ginger!” There might also be a wench (“Daisy!”) and a square-jawed bore (“Dad!”). Similar captions are required for the new characters in Her Majesty’s Opposition. No freckled urchins, naturally, but the hero is a bald chap called “Smithy!”. We must hope he is livelier than initial shots suggest.

Who are the other actors? Who are the new frontbenchers whose job will be to lead parliamentary scrutiny of Tony Blair’s second term? There aren’t many familiar names. Michael Howard is shadow chancellor, the Dr Kildareish Liam Fox remains at Health and that amiable yes-man Michael Ancram has been parked in Foreign Affairs. He and Jack Straw across the despatch box will be about as edgy as a charity Pro-Am tennis match.

Smithy’s political best man, Bernard Jenkin, has got Defence. An occasional nudist, Jenkin is the Tories’ answer to Pierce Brosnan. Some say he’s thick, but that is unfair. He studied at Cambridge; and on the BBC’s Question Time the other night, he demonstrated something close to statesmanship. Jenkin could be big box office in a year or so. No one doubts the intellects of Oliver Letwin at Home Affairs and David Willetts at Work and Pensions. Willetts is an egghead; Letwin, a frowning, cloistered presence, bombed in the election campaign, but he could retrieve his reputation with a few deft Commons questions that show how deeply the Home Secretary has considered his proposals.

In a shadow cabinet that is allegedly so right-wing, the education team looks surprisingly moderate. Damian Green, shadow secretary of state, is a sometime TV journalist. That may make him sound more exciting than is justified. He has a neat hairdo, flaps his hands and wears shiny suits. His sidekicks include the Prince Andrew lookalike Graham Brady, the centrist Alistair Burt (a parliamentary retread) and Eleanor Laing, who came to prominence when she made an enlightened speech about gays. She had to overcome some vile heckling from her own side and did so with courage. If Margaret Thatcher could “do business” with Mikhail Gorbachev’s Kremlin, then the teachers’ unions should be able to give Green and co a fair hearing. Another “lefty”, Tim Yeo, has been given the culture portfolio. Yeo was gentlemanly at Agriculture, where a meaner man might have done the government more political damage. His two understrappers are the open-minded Anne McIntosh and John Greenway, once a rozzer, and built more for boxing than ballet.

Where the right-wing stuff really kicks in is in the whips’ office, under the knuckle-cracking command of David Maclean. His closest friends in the Commons are David Davis, newly installed as party chairman, and, ah, what a piece of work, Eric Forth.

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“Go, Forth, and multiply” is what most Labour MPs think of the new shadow leader of the House. He certainly made a mosquito of himself in the last parliament. Here is a man who has actually read the Commons rule book and knows how to ram a stick in the lawmakers’ spokes. Does that make him an oik (if you can have an oik who wears fastidious three-piece suits complete with watch chain and silk hanky)? Or does it make him a tenacious parliamentary democrat?

Ann Widdecombe has gone; long live Jacqui Lait, the new shadow Scotland secretary. Lait boxes the same weight as Widdo but, in terms of policy, is on the temperate wing of the party. She can also shout even louder than her plaid jackets. When Lait and her Labour oppo, Helen Liddell, go at it in the Chamber, we gallery hacks may need artillery earplugs. I like the look, if that is the term, of the new shadow Wales secretary, Nigel Evans. Politics is only a day job for this bachelor boyo. He also helps out in the family newsagency business and, perhaps as a result, has a good grasp of popular concerns.

Anyone opposed to blood sports will be dismayed by the appointment of Caroline Spelman as shadow international development secretary. Spelman, hearty and trim in a hockey-player sort of way, will be up against Clare Short. She may last as long as a sausage in a piranha pond. Elsewhere on the female front, Smithy has given Transport, Local Government and the Regions to Theresa May, who wears power jackets that hint at a bicycle-stand bust.

And then there are the lower orders. Desmond Swayne, a defence spokesman, bicycles to Westminster after a year-round daily dip in the Serpentine. Swayne will be itching to throw a few hand grenades at ministers. The same defence team contains the eminently restrained James Gray, beautifully tailored and, according to one woman I know, “dead fanciable”.

At first, Ken Clarke thought the appointment to shadow solicitor-general a joke; then he had to be passed the smelling salts after discovering that, yes, William Cash had got the job. In the whips’ office, there are several Rhodesian Ridgebacks, among them David Wilshire, Julian Lewis and Laurence Robertson. Nasty? Or just natural whips?

Laugh at them if you like. That was always the idea with those American TV shows. But do remember that these clowns – or maybe far-sighted public servants – have a major role to play in our politics. Let’s see how they perform before we get too sniffy about their perceived shortcomings.

Quentin Letts is parliamentary sketch writer for the Daily Mail

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